Maternity Leave: A Working Mom’s Dilemma

My friend, Kay, and I are both pregnant, and our due dates are within days of each other. We were due on the same day for about a month, but I seem to be growing the Monster Baby, and my doctor has since moved my due date to October 22nd, less than 15 weeks from now.

Being pregnant, my friend and I have lots to talk about. We’re both expecting Baby #2, and while our sons are two years apart, we find that we’re experiencing many of the same things at the same and we love to commiserate about pregnancy ailments and our kids’ milestones.

While we have a lot in common, we do have one major difference. Kay works full time at a business office and I work from home in my living room office. Recently we had a discussion about maternity leave.

Kay struggles with the fact that her SigOth is self-employed, and her family depends on her income to make ends meet. Therefore her maternity leave will be less than 8 weeks. She simply must go back to work in order to pay the bills.

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I remember this situation all too well. I’ve walked in my friend’s shoes.

I had only been working at Big Travel Insurance Company for four months when I got pregnant with my son, Dawson, in early 2004. It was a surprise pregnancy. I surprise because we had been trying for 27 long and disappointing months to conceive, so when it finally happened we almost didn’t believe our dream had finally come true.

The first seven months of my pregnancy were mostly problem free, save for those typical pregnancy ailments like morning (or is it mourning?) sickness, heartburn and the ravenous hunger, but at 32 weeks I was diagnosed with pregnancy induced hypertension and my doctor ordered a week of bed rest to see if the condition would improve.

At first my employer was more than understanding. After seven days of laying on my left side, my blood pressure went down significantly and I went back to work the following Monday. By Thursday of that week I was feeling nauseated, my face was red and was feeling short of breath. Back to the doctor’s office I went. More testing was done and protein was found in my urine, indicating the condition pre-eclampsia. My doctor again ordered bed rest until delivery. I was 33 weeks pregnant and I could no longer work.

Panic and worry set in. How would we pay the bills? We had bought our house two years before and I had a car payment and credit card bills. My husband was worried sick about foreclosure and repossession and every other financial problem we could face.

Meanwhile, I was concerned about the health of our baby and the stress of worrying about whether or not I’d have a job to come back to after delivery. My Human Resources department told me I may not qualify for FMLA (which only guarantees unpaid leave) since I had not yet been employed with the company for a full year.

I qualified for short-term disability payments under the company health plan, which pay 60% of may wages for 2 weeks, and I used 2 weeks of vacation days that I had been saving for maternity leave in order to cover my medical leave due to bed rest.

I was induced at 38 because my pre-eclampsia had turned into toxemia. Dawson was born on September 16, 2004, one day after my one year anniversary with Big Travel Insurance Company. Thankfully, my son was healthy and had no health complications.

One would think the stress would end after having a beautiful baby, but the HR department called me a week after my son’s birth to say I could only have six weeks of unpaid maternity leave. The company did not offer a paid leave benefit. If I chose to take more time off, they said they would not be able to guarantee my job would be waiting when I returned to work. I was devastated.

Six weeks of maternity leave went quickly and I spent most of that time in tears, knowing my bonding time with Dawson was limited. I was stressed out most of those six weeks because I had to organize our daycare situation and pump enough breast milk to make sure my baby was well fed while I was at work.

On my first day back I had to meet with HR to complete paperwork. Imagine my surprise when the department supervisor said she was shocked to see me back to work so soon. I told her that the other HR person told me I didn’t qualify for FMLA. She explained that I did qualify because the law states, "An “eligible” employee is an employee who has been employed by the employer for a least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours." Before I went on bed rest I had put in more than 1,250 hours. She told me that they were required by law to hold my job as well.

You can imagine how angry I was at being misinformed. I was angry about the stress and worry they had caused. I seriously considered taking six more weeks off, but financially I couldn’t afford it. I had already endured the emotionally painful daycare drop-off. I decided to just suck it up and go back to work to climb out of the medical debt we racked up.

After sharing my experience with Kay, we agreed that unpaid maternity leave causes financial stress for many families in America. Most bankruptcies, foreclosures and repossessions are due to medical debts and too many families are often left in poverty instead of enjoying the births of their new babies.

Thanks to sites like MomsRising.org, moms and the people who love them are trying to change the world by fighting for paid maternity leave benefits in the United States. MomsRising offers these statistics:

  • Having a baby is a leading cause of "poverty spells" in the U.S. — when income dips below what’s needed for basic living expenses.
  • In the U.S., 49% of mothers cobble together paid leave following childbirth by using sick days, vacation days, disability leave, and maternity leave.
  • 51% of new mothers lack any paid leave — so some take unpaid leave, some quit, some even lose their jobs.
  • The U.S is one of only 4 countries that doesn’t offer paid leave to new mothers — the others are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
  • Paid family leave has been shown to reduce infant mortality by as much as 20% (and the U.S. ranks a low 37th of all countries in infant mortality).

Pretty shocking isn’t it?

When I think about my friend and all the mothers out there in her situation, I can’t help but feel sad. Having a baby is wonderful and it should be a happy time for parents. Mom and Dad shouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet in addition to caring for their new bundle of joy.

Sadly, access to paid family leave is more often offered to women in high paying jobs with college degrees. Self-employed business owners may not be able to afford time off, and last I checked we can’t go out and buy maternity leave insurance.

Because I work from home I have a little more flexibility with my work schedule. While I haven’t initiated the maternity leave discussion just yet, I’m getting ready to do so. Thankfully I work for a wonderful group and I’m confident we’ll be able to work things out smoothly. Other women aren’t as lucky. It’s rather upsetting.

Kay and I are full supporters of the paid family leave movement. It’s time our country ends its discrimination against mothers and families.

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